A little over a month ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of Marriage Equality in Obergefell v. Hodges. The brief moment in which the world found out the Court’s verdict, was one that many had waited years for.
The ruling, in addition to Bree Newsome’s heroic act of protest, resulted in an amazing political cartoon. It pictured the Confederate Flag being taken down, and the Pride flag being raised to replace it. As monumental as the event was, many do not know the decades of work that led to it, as well as the issues that continue to plague the queer community.
Wait, Marriage Equality Started in the 1970’s?
Same-sex marriage, was not even a thought in the United States until the late 20th century. Queer people living in 1950s and 1960s, like the brave trans women who rioted at Compton’s Cafeteria and Stonewall, were not concerned with getting married; they were fighting for the right to live. Even though that fight continues, there was a spark in 1969, the Stonewall Riots, that became a rallying point for the queer movement. In 1970, the United States saw its first Pride Parades to commemorate the riots. The 1970s was also when the idea of same-sex marriage became more popular.
The reason for this is debated, and explanations vary from partner’s of queer HIV/AIDS patients needing the privileges that came with marriage, to the desire of cis, gay people to assimilate into mainstream culture. Regardless, the marriage debate was born. In October of 1972, the Supreme Court dismissed Baker v. Nelson, a case that challenged a Minnesota District Court Clerk for denying a same-sex couple a marriage license. In 1973, Maryland became the first state to ban same-sex marriage. In 1975, the first federal lawsuit for the right to marry someone of the same sex was filed, and quickly struck down.
There Was Hope for Marriage Equality in the 1990’s
Advocates for marriage equality finally found a foothold in 1993. The Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in Baehr v. Lewin that denying same-sex couples the right to marry violated the state constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. Despite the passing of DOMA in 1996, a federal judge in Hawaii ruled in favor of marriage equality. However in 1998, conservatives succeeded in amending the Hawaii state constitution to limit marriage to different-sex couples.
While that was a major loss for marriage equality advocates, it was the start of further action across the United States. California became the first state to legalize same-sex domestic partnerships in 1999. In the same year, Virginia legalized same-sex civil unions. Noticing this momentum, lawmakers in 28 states, to make a total of 29, succeeded in amending state constitutions to ban same-sex marriage.
On the Up and Up in the 2000’s
Not long after, in November of 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health that same-sex couples had a right to marry, and same-sex marriage became legal in 2004. Per tradition, lawmakers in eleven states successfully created constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, and even domestic partnerships and civil unions in some areas. While much of the country shied away from the issue, Connecticut legalized same-sex civil unions in 2005. In the same year, as well as in 2007, the California Legislature passed a bill establishing marriage equality, which Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed promptly. In the following year, 2006, New Jersey legalized civil unions in Lewis v. Harris, which was met with the response of seven more states creating constitutional amendments banning marriage equality.
It should be obvious by now that with every victory came a set back. Opponents to marriage equality simply weren’t willing to give up. The fight continued as Washington, New Hampshire, and Oregon legalized same-sex domestic partnerships in 2007. In 2008, California legalized same-sex marriage, only for couples to be devastated at the end of the year when Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage in the state, was passed. Despite that loss, in the same year we saw Connecticut legalize same-sex marriage and Maryland legalize same-sex domestic partnerships.
The Progress of Marriage Equality
At this point, the legalization of same-sex marriage picked up pace. In 2009, Iowa, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, and Washington D.C. established marriage equality. Nevada and Wisconsin established same-sex domestic partnerships. In 2011, same-sex civil unions were established in Hawaii, Delaware, and Rhode Island, and same-sex marriage was legalized in New York. In 2012, Washington, Maine, and Maryland citizens voted to legalize same-sex marriage. Rhode Island legalized same-sex marriage in 2013, as did Delaware, New Jersey, New Mexico, Hawaii, and Minnesota. DOMA was also struck down by the Supreme Court in the same year.
Those of us who kept up with the news should now realize this is where things started getting shaky. Some states weren’t touching marriage equality, and some were passing it only to have it appealed and stayed. Multiple states, such as Kentucky and Oklahoma, were awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court as of 2014. In January of 2015, the Supreme Court announced that it would rule on marriage equality, and now we all know how that ended up!
Marriage Equality in The Rest of the World
Other countries may look at the United States, bewildered by the struggle it took to establish marriage equality. The Netherlands legalized it in 2001, and Belgium in 2003. Our neighbor, Canada, legalized it in 2005, as did Spain. South Africa legalized it in 2006. Norway and Sweden in 2009, and Portugal, Iceland, and Argentina in 2010. Brazil, France, Uruguay, New Zealand, and the U.K. legalized same-sex marriage in 2011. Of course, I’m leaving out multiple other countries, and the many countries who legalized civil unions in place of marriage. My point is that the United States was not the most progressive on this issue. However, to be fair, in comparison to other countries, we span a large geographic region with diverse subcultures, and we tend to leave things like marriage up to individual states. I’d also like to point out that while it’s good to discuss our successes, we must not forget that in countries like Uganda and Russia, and even for marginalized folks in the United States, like trans women of color, marriage isn’t something they have the privilege of worrying about.
Now, There’s Even More Work to Do
Looking at the big picture, the fight for marriage equality started in the 1970s, with minor wins in the 1990s, and true momentum in the late 2000s. It took decades of work to establish marriage equality, and even now that we have it, there are still countless issues we must combat, most of which were pushed under the rug to advance the agenda of marriage equality. The fight for marriage equality was an important one, but based in respectability politics and queer assimilation. Moving forward, it’s important that we focus on other pressing issues that mainstream society has chosen to ignore, such as: the victimization of trans women of color, homelessness among queer youth, job discrimination, police brutality, and countless other things. It’s time to get to work.